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The Novel, The Novelette, And The Short Story

( Originally Published 1918 )

Novel, Novelette, and Short-Story—The Novel and the Novelette—The Short-Story a Distinct Type—The Dictum of Poe—The Formula of Brander Matthews—Definition of the Short-Story—Explanation of This Definition: 1. "Single Narrative Effect"; 2. "Greatest Economy of Means"; and 3. "Utmost Emphasis"—Brief Tales That Are Not Short-Stories—Short-Stories That Are Not Brief—Bliss Perry's Annotations—The Novelist and the Writer of Short-Stories—The Short-Story More Artistic Than the Novel—The Short-Story Almost Necessarily Romantic.

Novel, Novelette, and Short-Story.—Turning our attention from the epic and the drama, and confining it to the general type of fiction which in the last chapter was loosely named novelistic, we shall find it possible to distinguish somewhat sharply, on the basis of both material and method, between three several forms,-the novel, the novelette, and the short-story. The French, who are more precise than we in their use of denotative terms, are accustomed to divide their novelistic fiction into what they call the roman, the nouvelle, and the conte. "Novel" and "novelette" are just as serviceable terms as roman and nouvelle; in fact, since "novelette" is the diminutive cf "novel," they express even more clearly than their French equivalents the relation between the two forms they designate. But it is greatly to be regretted that we do not have in English a distinctive word that is the equivalent of conte. Edgar Allan Poe used the word "tale" with similar meaning; but this term is so indefinite and vague that it has been discarded by later critics. It is customary at the present day to use the word "short-story," which Professor Brander Matthews has suggested spelling with a hyphen to indicate that it has a special and technical significance.

The French apply the term roman to extensive works like "Notre Dame de Paris" and "Eugénie Grandet"; and they apply the term nouvelle to works of briefer compass but similar method, like the " Colomba" and the "Carmen" of Prosper Mérimée. In English we may class as novels works like "Kenilworth," " The New-comes," "The Last of the Mohicans," "The Rise of Silas Lapham"; and we may class as novelettes works like "Daisy Miller," "The Treasure of Franchard," "The Light That Failed." The difference is merely that the novelette (or nouvelle) is a work of less extent, and covers a smaller canvas, than the novel (or roman). The distinction is quantitative but not qualitative. The novelette deals with fewer characters and incidents than the novel; it usually limits itself to a stricter economy of time and place; it presents a less extensive view of life, with (most frequently) a more intensive art. But these differences are not definite enough to warrant its being considered a species distinct from the novel. Except for the restrictions imposed by brevity of compass, the writer of novelettes employs the same methods as the writer of novels; and, furthermore, he sets forth similar materials.

The Novel and the Novelette.—More and more in recent years, the novel has tended to shorten to the novelette. A stricter sense of art has led to the exclusion of digressive and discursive passages; and the hurry and preoccupation of contemporary readers has militated against the leisurely and rambling habit of the authors of an earlier time. The lesson of excision and condensation has been taught by writers as different in tone as Mérimée, Turgénieff, and Stevenson. "The three-volume novel is extinct," as Mr. Kipling stated in the motto prefixed to the poem called "The Three-Decker," in which, with a commingling of satire and sentiment, he chanted its requiem. It was nearly always, in the matter of structure, a slovenly form; and there is therefore little cause for regret that the novelette seems destined to supplant it. For the novelette accomplishes the same purpose as the novel, with necessarily a more intensive emphasis of art, and with a tax considerably less upon the time and attention of the reader.

The Short-Story a Distinct Type.—But the conte, or short-story, differs from the novel and the novelette not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively, not only in length, but also in kind. In such contes as "The Necklace" of de Maupassant and "The Last Class of Daudet, in such short-stories a s "Ligeia," "The Ambitious Guest," "Markheim," and "Without Benefit of Clergy," the aim of the author is quite distinct from that of the writer of novels and of novelettes. In material and in method, as well as in extent, these stories represent a type that is noticeably different.

The short-story, as well as the novel and the novelette, has always existed. The parable of "The Prodigal Son," in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, is just as surely a short-story in material and method as the books of "Ruth" and "Esther" are novelettes in form. But the critical consciousness of the short-story as a species of fiction distinct in purpose and in method from the novel dates only from the nineteenth century. It was Edgar Allan Poe who first designated and realized the short-story as a distinct form of literary art. In the scholarly and thorough introduction to his collection of "American Short Stories," Professor Charles Sears Baldwin points out that Poe, more than any of his predecessors in the art of fiction, felt narrative as structure. It was he who first rejected from the tale everything that was, from the standpoint of narrative form, extraneous, and made the narrative progress more direct. The essential features of his structure were (to use Professor Baldwin's words) harmonization, simplification, and gradation. He stripped his stories of every least incongruity. Whathe taught by his example was reduction to a straight predetermined course; and he made clear to succeeding writers the necessity of striving for unity of impression through strict unity of form.

The Dictum of Poe.—Poe was a critic as well as a teller of tales; and what he inculcated by example he also stated by precept. In his now famous review of Hawthorne's "Tales," published originally in Graham's Magazine for May, 1842, he thus outlined his theory of the species:-

"The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fulness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control. There are no external or extrinsic influences—resulting from weariness or interruption.

"A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided."

The Formula of Brander Matthews.—From the very outset, the currency of Poe's short-stories was inter-national; and his concrete example in striving for totality of impression exerted an immediate influence not only in America but even more in France. But his abstract theory, which (for obvious reasons) did not become so widely known, was not received into the general body of critical thought until much later in the century. It remained for Professor Brander Matthews, in his well-known essay on "The Philosophy of the Short-story," printed originally in Lippincott's Magazine for October, 1885,1 to state explicitly what had lain implicit in the passage of Poe's criticism already quoted, and to give a general currency to the theory that the short-story differs from the novel essentially,—and not merely in the matter of length. In the second section of his essay, Professor Matthews stated:

"A true short-story is something other and something more than a mere story which is short. A true short-story differs from the novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression. In a far more exact and precise use of the word, a short-story has unity as a novel cannot have it. Often, it may be noted by the way, the short-story fulfills the three false unities of the French classic drama: it shows one action, in one place, on one day. A short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation. Poe's paradox that a poem cannot greatly exceed a hundred lines in length under penalty of ceasing to be one poem and breaking into a string of poems, may serve to suggest the precise difference between the short-story and the novel. The short-story is the single effect, complete and self-contained, while the novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes. Thus the short story has, what the novel cannot have, the effect of `totality,' as Poe called it, the unity of impression.

"Of a truth, the short-story is not only not a chapter out of a novel, or an incident or an episode extracted from a longer tale, but at its best it impresses the reader with the belief that it would be spoiled if it were made larger, or if it were incorporated into a more elaborate work.

"In fact, it may be said that no one has ever succeeded as a writer of short-stories who had not ingenuity, originality, and compression; and that most of those who have succeeded in this line had also the touch of fantasy."

Definition of the Short-Story.—On the basis of these theories, the present writer essayed a few years ago to formulate within a single sentence a definition of the short-story. Thus: The aim of a short-story is to pro-duce a single narrative effect with the greatest economy of means that is consistent with the utmost emphasis.

Explanation of This Definition : 1. "Single Narrative Effect."—Because of its succinctness, this sentence needs a little explanation. A narrative effect necessarily involves the three elements of action, characters, and setting. In aiming to produce a narrative effect, the short-story, therefore, differs from the sketch, which may concern itself with only one of these elements, without involving the other two. The sketch most often deals with character or setting divested of the element of action; but in the short-story something has to happen. In this regard, the short-story is related more closely to the novel than to the sketch. But although in the novel any two, or all three, of the narrative elements may be so intimately interrelated that no one of them stands out clearly from the others, it is almost always customary in the short-story to cast a marked preponderance of emphasis on one of the elements, to the subversion of the other two. Short-stories, therefore, may be divided into three classes, according as the effect which they purpose to produce is primarily an effect of action, or of character, or of setting. "The Masque of the Red Death" produces an effect of setting, "The Tell-Tale Heart" an effect of character, and "The Cask of Amontillado" an effect of action. For the sake of economy it is incumbent on the author to suggest at the outset which of the three sorts of narrative effect the story is intended to produce. The way in which Poe accomplished this in the three stories just mentioned may be seen at once upon examination of the opening paragraph of each. Having selected his effect the author of a short-story should confine his attention to producing that, and that alone. He should stop at the very moment when his preestablished design has been attained; and never during the progress of his composition should he turn aside for the sake of a lesser effect not absolutely inherent in his single narrative purpose. Stevenson insisted on this focus of attention in a passage of a personal letter addressed to Sir Sidney Colvin:

"Make another end to it? Ah, yes, but that's not the way I write; the whole tale is implied; I never use an effect when I can help it, unless it prepares the effects that are to follow; that's what a story consists in. To make another end, that is to make the beginning all wrong. The dénouement of a long story is nothing, it is just `a full close,' which you may approach and accomplish as you please—it is a coda, not an essential member in the rhythm; but the body and end of a short-story is bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the beginning."

2. "Greatest Economy of Means"; and 3. "Utmost Emphasis."—The phrase "single narrative effect," with all its implications, should now be clear. The phrase "with the greatest economy of means" implies that the writer of a short-story should tell his tale with the fewest necessary number of characters and incidents, and should project it in the narrowest possible range of place and time. If he can get along with two characters, he should not use three. If a single event will suffice for his effect, he should confine himself to that. If his story can pass in one place at one time, he must not disperse it over several times and places. But in striving always for the greatest possible conciseness, he must not neglect the equally important need of producing his effect "with the utmost emphasis." If he can gain markedly in emphasis by violating the strictest possible economy, he should do so; for, as Poe stated, undue brevity is exceptionable, as well as undue length. Thus the parable of "The Prodigal Son," which might be told with only two characters—the father and the prodigal—gains sufficiently in emphasis by the introduction of a third—the good son —to warrant this violation of economy. The greatest structural problem of the writer of short-stories is to strike just the proper balance between the effort for economy of means—which tends to conciseness—and the effort for the utmost emphasis—which tends to amplitude of treatment.

Brief Tales That Are Not Short-Stories.--There can be no doubt that the short-story, thus rigidly defined, exists as a distinct form of fiction,—a definite literary species obeying laws of its own. Now and again before the nineteenth century, it appeared unconsciously. Since Poe, it has grown conscious of itself, and has been deliberately developed to perfection by later masters, like Guy de Maupassant. But it must be admitted frankly that brief tales have always existed, and still continue to exist, which stand entirely outside the scope of this rigid and rather narrow definition. Professor Baldwin, after a careful examination of the hundred tales in Boccaccio's "Decameron," concluded that only two of them were short-stories in the modern critical sense,' and that only three others approached the totality of impression that depends on conscious unity of form. If we should select at random a hundred brief tales from the best contemporary magazines, we should find, of course, that a larger proportion of them would fulfill the definition; but it is almost certain that the majority of them would still be stories that merely happen to be short, instead of true short-stories in the modern critical sense. Yet these brief fictions, which are not short-stories, and for which we have no name, are none the less estimable in content, and sometimes present a wider view of life than could be encompassed within the rigid limits of a technical short-story. Hawthorne's tales stand higher in the history of literature than Poe's, because they reveal a deeper insight into life, even though the great New England dreamer often violates the principle of economy of means, and constructs less firmly than the mathematically-minded Poe. Washington Irving's brief tales, such as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, "which are not short-stories in the technical sense of the term, are far more valuable as representations of humanity than many a structural masterpiece of Guy de Maupassant. "For my part," Irving wrote to one of his friends, "I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch the materials; it is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language, the weaving in of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole,—these are among what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportion as I think I succeed." There is much to be said in favor of this meandering and leisurely method; and authors too intent upon a merely technical accomplishment may lose the genial breadth of outlook upon life which men like Irving have so charmingly displayed. Let us admit, therefore, that the story-which-is-merely-short is just' as worthy of cultivation as the technical short-story.

Short-Stories That Are Not Brief.—But if there exist many brief tales which are not short-stories, so also there exist certain short-stories which are not brief. "The Turn of the Screw," by Henry James, is a short-story, in the technical sense of the term, although it contains between two and three hundred pages. Assuredly it is not a novelette. It aims to produce one narrative effect, and only one; and it is difficult to imagine how the full force of its cumulative mystery and terror could have been created with greater economy of means. It is a long short-story. Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which is conceived, and for the most part executed, as a short-story, is longer than the same author's "The Beach of Falesa," which is conceived and executed as a novelette. Edward Everett Hale's famous short-story, "The Man Without a Country," is long enough to be printed in a little volume by itself. The point to be remembered, therefore, is that the two different types of brief fiction are to be distinguished one from the other not by comparative length but by structural method. The critic may formulate the technical laws of the stricter type; but it must not be forgotten that these laws do not apply (and there is no reason whatever that they should) to those other estimable narratives which, though brief, stand outside the definition of the short-story.

Bliss Perry's Annotations.—Bearing in mind this Iimitation of the subject, we may proceed to a further study of the strict short-story type. In an admirable essay on "The Short Story," Professor Bliss Perry had discussed at length its requirements and restrictions. Admitting that writers of short-stories usually cast a marked preponderance of emphasis on one of the three elements of narrative, to the subversion of the other two, Professor Perry calls attention to the fact that in the short-story of character, "the characters must be unique, original enough to catch the eye at once." The writer does not have sufficient time at his disposal to reveal the full human significance of the commonplace. "If his theme is character-development, then that development must be hastened by striking experiences." Hence this class of short-story, as compared with the novel, must set forth characters more unusual and unexpected. But in the short-story of action, on the other hand, the plot may be sufficient unto itself, and the characters may be the merest lay figures. The heroine of "The Lady or the Tiger," for example, is simply a woman—not any woman in particular; and the hero of "The Pit and the Pendulum" is simply a man-not any man in particular. The situation itself is sufficient to hold the reader's interest for the brief space of the story. Hence, although, in the short-story of character, the leading actor is likely to be strikingly individualized, the short-story of action may content itself with entirely colorless characters, devoid of any personal traits whatever. Professor Perry adds that in the class of short-story which casts the main emphasis on setting, "both characters and action may be almost without significance"; and he continues,—"If the author can discover to us a new corner of the world, or sketch the familiar scene to our heart's desire, or illumine one of the great human occupations, as war, or commerce, or industry, he has it in his power, through this means alone, to give us the fullest satisfaction."

From the fact that the short-story does not keep the powers of the reader long upon the stretch, Professor Perry deduces certain opportunities afforded to short story writers but denied to novelists,—opportunities, namely, "for innocent didacticism, for posing problems without answering them, for stating arbitrary premises, for omitting unlovely details and, conversely, for making beauty out of the horrible, and finally for poetic symbolism." Passing on to a consideration of the demands which the short-story makes upon the writer, he asserts that, at its best, "it calls for visual imagination of a high order: the power to see the object; to penetrate to its essential nature; to select the one characteristic trait by which it may be represented." Furthermore, it demands a mastery of style, "the verbal magic that recreates for us what the imagination has seen." But, on the other hand, "to write a short-story requires no sustained power of imagination"; "nor does the short-story demand of its author essential sanity, breadth, and tolerance of view." Since he deals only with fleeting phases of existence—"not with wholes, but with fragments"—the writer of the short-story "need not be consistent; he need not think things through." Hence, in spite of the technical difficulties which beset the author of short-stories, his work is, on human grounds, more easy than that of the novelist, who must be sane and consistent, and must be able to sustain a prolonged effort of interpretive imagination.

The Novelist and the Writer of Short-Stories.-These points have been so fully covered and so admirably illustrated by Professor Perry that they do not call for any further discussion in this place. But perhaps something may be added concerning the different equipments that are required by authors of novels and authors of short-stories. Matthew Arnold, in a well-known sonnet, spoke of Sophocles as a man "who saw life steadily and saw it whole"; and if we judge the novelist and the writer of short-stories by their attitudes toward life, we may say that they divide this verse between them. Balzac, George Eliot, and Meredith look at life in the large; they try to "see it whole" and to reproduce the chaos of its intricate relations: but Poe, de Maupassant, and Mr. Kipling aim rather to "see steadily" a limited phase of life, to focus their minds upon a single point of experience, and then to depict this point briefly and strikingly. It follows that the novelist requires an experience of life far more extensive than that which is required by the writer of short-stories. The great novelists have all been men of mature years and accumulated wisdom. But if An author knows one little point of life profoundly, he may fashion a great short-story, even though that one thing be the only thing he knows. Of life as it is actually rived, of genuine humanity of character, of moral responsibility in human intercourse, Edgar Allan Poe knew nothing; and yet he was fully equipped to produce what remain until this day the most perfect examples of the short-story in our language. It is therefore not surprising that, although the great novels of the world have been written for the most part by men over forty years of age, the great short-stories have been written by men in their twenties and their thirties. Mr. Kipling wrote two or three short-stories which are almost great when he was only seventeen. Steadiness of vision is a quality of mind quite distinct from the ability to see things whole. "Plain Tales from the Hills" are in many ways the better stories for being the work of a lad of twenty: whatever Mr. Kipling saw at that very early age he envisaged steadily and expressed with the glorious triumphant strength of youth. But if at the same period he had attempted a novel, the world undoubtedly would have found out how very young he was. He would have been incapable of slicing a cross-section clean through the vastitude of human life, of seeing it whole, and of representing the appalling intricacy of its interrelations. On the other hand, most of the mature men who have been wise enough to do the latter, have shown themselves incapable of focussing their minds steadily upon a single point of experience. Wholeness and steadiness of vision -few are the men who, like Sophocles, have possessed them both. The same author, therefore, has almost never been able to write great short-stories and great novels. Scott wrote only one short-story,—"Wandering Willie's Tale" in "Redgauntlet"; Dickens also wrote only one that is worthy of being considered a masterpiece of art,—"A Child's Dream of a Star"; and Thackeray, Cooper, George Eliot, and Meredith have written none at all. On the other hand, Poe could not possibly have written a novel; Guy de Maupassant shows himself less masterly in his more extended works; and Mr. Kip-ling has yet to prove that the novel is within his powers. Hawthorne is the one most notable example of the man who, beginning as a writer of short-stories, has developed in maturer years a mastery of the novel.

The Short-Story More Artistic Than the Novel.—Unlike the short-story, the novel aims to produce a series of effects,—a cumulative combination of the elements of narrative,—and acknowledges no restriction to economy of means. It follows that the novel, as a literary form, requires far less attention than the short-story to minute details of art. Great novels may be written by authors as careless as Scott, as lazy as Thackeray, or as cumber-some as George Eliot; for if a novelist gives us a criticism of life which is new and true, we forgive him if he fails in the nicer points of structure and style. But without these nicer points, the short-story is impossible. The economy of means that it demands can be conserved only by rigid restriction of structure; and the necessary emphasis can be produced only by perfection of style. The great masters of the short-story, like Poe and Hawthorne, Daudet and de Maupassant, have all been careful artists: they have not, like Thackeray, been slovenly in structure; they have not, like Scott, been regardless of style. The artistic instinct shows itself almost always at a very early age. If a man is destined to be an artist, he usually exhibits a surprising precocity of expression at a period when as yet he has very little to express. This is another reason why the short-story, as opposed to the novel, belongs to youth rather than to age. Though a young writer may be obliged to acknowledge inferiority to his elders in maturity of message, he may not infrequently transcend them in fineness of technical accomplishment.

The Short-Story Almost Necessarily Romantic.—Another point that remains to be considered, before we relinquish this general discussion in order to devote our attention more particularly to a technical study of the structure of the short-story, is that, although the novel may be either realistic or romantic in general method, the short-story is almost of necessity obliged to be romantic. In the brief space allotted to him, it is practically impossible for the writer of short-stories to induce a general truth from particular imagined facts imitated from actuality: it is far simpler to deduce the imagined details of the story from a central thesis, held securely in the author's mind and suggested to the reader at the outset. It is a quicker process to think from the truth to facts than to think from facts to the truth. Daudet and de Maupassant, who worked realistically in their novels, worked romantically in their contes; and the great short-stories of our own language have nearly all been written by romantic authors, like Poe, Hawthorne, Stevenson, and Mr. Kipling.


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